November 17, 2018

An Unorthodox View of Who’s Orthodox

Who knew that an article on Jewish love would generate a little debate?

A while back, I wrote a piece titled, "Shut Up, I Love You!" (Feb. 14) about how Jews are great at giving to each other but lousy at taking from each other. I suggested you honor your fellow Jews by taking or learning something from them. This makes every Jew feel needed and important, and encourages the unifying dynamic of reciprocity.

Well, what do you know? I received numerous responses, some of them quite challenging. In particular, I want to respond to my observant friends who have asked me to answer this question: What can they take from a Jew who doesn’t believe the Torah is the word of God and who feels no need or obligation to follow His commandments? What can they take from that "truth"?

This is perhaps the toughest question on the subject, and if a godly answer could be found, it might unlock the secret to Jewish unity.

So let me start with this: There is no such thing as a nonobservant Jew. When a secular Jew visits a sick person in the hospital, at that moment he’s not secular, he’s Orthodox. He is performing the all-important mitzvah of bikur cholim (visiting the sick) whether he calls it that or not.

Similarly, I have a lifelong colleague who is a Reform Jew and who goes to synagogue once or twice a year. In the parlance of the day, he can be labeled "nonobservant." But when it comes to the critical commandment on lashon hara (guard your tongue from speaking evil) he’s a fanatic. In fact, on that mitzvah, he’s more observant than many Orthodox people I know.

Conversely, when an Orthodox Jew transgresses — whether by doing lashon hara or getting angry or anything else — at that moment he is nonobservant. The fact that his beliefs are Orthodox does not make his actions Orthodox.

And isn’t it an accepted Orthodox view that Judaism is more a religion of action than of beliefs? If that’s the case, then we can even say that all Jews are Orthodox or even ultra-Orthodox — it just depends on the time of day.

Now imagine if the Orthodox Jews of the world would reach out to the non-Orthodox and actually validate their good deeds as manifestations of halacha (Jewish law)?

I don’t use the word halacha loosely. For example, picture a Reform Jew who is actively involved in social or environmental causes, like feeding the hungry or fighting against pollution. Those causes are also commandments from God. They are bona fide mitzvahs that do something all Orthodox Jews love to do: create "Kiddush Hashem" (sanctifying the name of God). That’s not just a good idea, that’s halacha.

To take this dream even further, imagine if observant Jews would take or learn a few mitzvahs from the nonobservant: like a group of ultra-Orthodox demonstrating for the revival of the Los Angeles River, because the river’s desecration is destroying Hashem’s creation, or kippah-wearing Jews setting up a soup kitchen on Skid Row, because we are "our brothers’ keepers" and God wants us to do just that.

Was there ever a greater "Kiddush Hashem" than when the Orthodox Abraham Joshua Heschel marched in the 1960s with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to fight for blacks’ civil rights?

If a Jew does something that creates "Kiddush Hashem," is that mitzvah any less valid or important than, say, putting on tefillin? The Torah offers many ways to honor the name of God and create a dwelling place for Him.

So here’s a challenge to Torah scholars: Study the good deeds of nonobservant Jews and see if there is a Torah or halachic rationale for these good deeds. You might find that there are more frummies among us than you ever dreamed of.

The central idea here is that we should all take a step back and stop trying to change each other, which doesn’t work. What might work better is a two-way relationship in which we exchange good deeds, judge actions rather than people and recognize that not only are all Jews created equal, but all mitzvahs are created equal.

If we started on this more open road, we could create a new dynamic in Jewish life. By celebrating the holiness in each other, we’d be building not a patronizing or superficial unity but a unity of need, in which every Jewish soul contributes to the common destiny. We would not be accepting the status quo, we’d be making it holier.

Perhaps most beautifully, we would be inviting more reciprocity, which would ignite more mitzvahs. If you’re an Orthodox Jew, for example, and your mission is to make Jews more observant, by acknowledging the mitzvah of a nonobservant Jew, you’d make it more likely that he’d repay the favor and open his heart to Shabbat, tefillin, kashrut, mikvah, etc.

In other words, by exchanging, we can all win. And in a true loving relationship, when real unity reigns, everybody wins — even God.

David Suissa is founder and CEO of Suissa Miller Advertising, and founder/editor of OLAM magazine and the activist site He can be reached